College Football Title Pits Rich vs. Richer, and Idaho’s Over It

University of Idaho president Chuck Staben was home with his family in Boise on New Year’s Day when he got an angry message from an alumnus. “Are you watching the Rose Bowl?” it read. “That’s the sort of experience Idaho had before you made your awful decision.”

Almost two years after Staben announced that the Vandals would no longer compete in college football’s top division and a month after the school won its final Football Bowl Subdivision game, the angry messages haven’t disappeared. Neither has Staben’s conviction that lower-stakes football is the right thing for his school.

“There is this hyper-polarization between the haves and the have-nots,” said Staben, whose team will compete next year in the Football Championship Subdivision. “We’re not deciding between the Rose Bowl and FCS. We’re deciding between being a marginal FBS program and FCS.”

The University of Alabama will play the University of Georgia tonight for college football’s national championship, a match-up fueled by rabid fans, talented players and hundreds of millions of dollars. Both schools are among the 15 highest-earning university athletic programs. Alabama athletics, which has won four of the last eight football championships, generated $161 million in revenue in 2015-16; Georgia took in $120 million.

Small Potatoes

The top teams in college football's top division are revenue juggernauts. The rest are not.

Source: USA Today, public schools only

Idaho, meanwhile, brought in $10 million across all of its sports, enough to cover less than half of its budget. The rest came from the broader university and student fees. The Rose Bowl experience was a fantasy, and Staben knew it, even if some alumni didn’t.

“That isn’t by any means the kind of thing the University of Idaho is likely going to attain,” Staben said. “It’s a totally different league, and you and I and all reasonable people understand that.”

Though no university has copied Staben’s move, schools across the country are closely following Idaho’s transition. Staben said presidents at other schools have called to say they admire his courage. Some would love to do the same, they tell him, but they’re too worried about the outcry from alumni.

The backlash is real. Angry fans published Staben’s home address online, and he said his car and his wife’s were vandalized. Two major donors to the athletic department withdrew their support. Overall donations dropped around 50 percent, and Staben estimates that the department will lose more than $1 million this year.

Longer term, however, he’s betting the school comes out ahead. His department can now offer fewer sports, spend less on travel and award fewer scholarships. There’s also less pressure to spend lavishly on football coaching staffs and state-of-the-art practice facilities.

“We’re now considering whether we can offer student athletes the chance to study abroad. Can you give them time off from sports to pursue other interests?” Staben said. “I don’t think you’ll see people doing that at the FBS level.”

Staben sees an opportunity in basketball, a cheaper sport with its own national stage in the NCAA Tournament. The school is raising money to build a new $45 million arena and this week announced a $10 million naming-rights agreement from the Idaho Central Credit Union. Funds now stand at $34 million, and despite anger over his football decision, Staben believes the donors will fully fund the project. “Our future is really really bright,” Athletic Director Rob Spear said at the announcement.

So far, Idaho remains an outlier. The FBS continues to grow, creating a glut of schools at the bottom of the division. Of the 112 public universities in the FBS last year, 45 generated less than $20 million directly from athletics. The average Southeastern Conference school generated $131 million. All but a handful of athletic departments need money from the institution to balance their budgets.

Those numbers are jarring to Russell Wright, founder and managing director of Atlanta-based Collegiate Consulting, which advised Idaho on its decision. Wright’s company is now gently reaching out to some schools at the bottom of FBS, asking if they might be interested in research on what life would look like in a lower division.

“Some of these athletic directors have their heads in sand a bit, but I guarantee that presidents at some of these schools are watching,” Wright said. “When you’ve got a $30 million budget, and your football program goes 4-8 every year, and attendance is 5,000 a game, that’s unsustainable.”

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